It’s 1975, late afternoon on Christmas Day in Aurora, Ohio at the Frenches’. Linda and I have braved the West Virginia Turnpike in winter (Our Motto: Under Construction unto Eternity) to drive up from Durham. My folks still live in Aurora, too (we’ll divide our time with a microtome), but right now we’re sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad French, Skip, Jill, Sue, Becky, Annie, Jodi, and several imposing snowdrifts of torn wrapping paper, eating another delicious something, and waiting.
There’s the knock. John is here! Hugs galore, then he sets up his screen and fiddles with the old Super-8 projector and little reel-to-reel tape player, frame by frame and inch by inch so they’ll sync when he throws the switch. Dim the lights. Action, sound! Grazini Christmas. A new tradition is born.
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How many years, John, did you make that pilgrimage to the Frenches’ to set up your projector? Your audience gradually shrank as the sibs moved on – Minnesota, New Mexico, West Virginia. Some years I had to work on Christmas and we didn’t make it north. A few years ago you sent us a Grazini DVD and man, did those memories come rushing back! Now this season I’ve watched GC twice already, once when you sent me the YouTube link and once with my Mom after showing her how to add it to her Favorites Bar. Margaret may be getting tired of me going on and on about the amazing story boarding and cinematography accomplished by two teenagers learning on the fly. Linda has reminded us how she had to trail you guys around downtown Cleveland all day until it was time for her thirty-second scene. But most important, John, is the lump in my throat – I still get it during that closing scene. Every darn time. I know what’s coming, I can recite the dialogue, one might say the message is so simple as to be obvious, but I still choke up.
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Readers, it’s time for you to watch Grazini Christmas. In 1972 two high school seniors, John Mlinek and Dave Prittie, made a movie with a handheld Super-8 camera, a portable tape recorder, and scissors and tape. A hero for our time, Grazini-Man searches for the true meaning of Christmas. The film is literally a family tradition – watch for Linda as the little old lady and her brother Skip as the blind scam artist. Much of it is shot on location in Cleveland; that’s the real Higbees Department Store Santa (the store security guard chased them out once he figured out what they were up to). The closing scene is set in The Church in Aurora, where Linda and I were in the high school youth group, just a block from Linda’s parents’ home. Tradition.
How is it possible to “make” something a tradition? The word means that which is handed down – doesn’t that imply that a tradition must seep into you from the past, that it requires years and years of gestation before its birth? Maybe John hadn’t created a tradition the first time he knocked on Linda’s door with his projector, but I’m willing to say that by the second time he had indeed. I think the secret is more than the family context, the predictable jokes, the backstory. I think this little film connects with something primal – at some level we are all of us always searching for meaning, whether we can articulate it or not.
Thanks, John. Got to go now. Getting ready to premier Grazini Christmas on the big flat screen. Linda says, “Hi.”
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And there were in the same country shepherds
abiding in the field, keeping watch
over their flock by night. And, lo,
the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God,
and saying, Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Luke 2:8-15 KJV
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Click to watch Grazini Christmas, written produced and directed by John Mlinek.
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